Sep 22, 2021 - World

Scoop: U.S. and Israel held secret talks on Iran "plan B"

Bennett and Biden. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. and Israel held secret talks on Iran last week to discuss a possible “plan B” if nuclear talks are not resumed, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: This is the first time a top-secret U.S.-Israel strategic working group on Iran has convened since the new Israeli government took office in June.

Driving the news: The meeting last week was held via a secure video conference call and led by national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Eyal Hulata.

  • The Israeli side stressed the need to move ahead with a “plan B” on Iran due to the stalemate in diplomatic talks and Iran's nuclear acceleration.
  • The U.S. side stressed that it was also concerned about the stalemate and said the U.S. would impose additional sanctions on Iran if talks don't resume soon, an Israeli official told me.
  • A White House spokesperson told Axios that the U.S. "remains engaged in ongoing consultations with the Israeli government on a range of issues related to the challenge posed by Iran."

Flashback: The working group, code-named “Opal” (Leshem in Hebrew), was established in the early days of the Obama administration and was headed by the national security advisers on both sides.

  • It was the main venue for strategizing over how to apply pressure on Iran during Obama’s first term, and it became the primary setting to air disagreements about the nuclear deal during Obama’s second term.
  • During Donald Trump's tenure, the forum convened to discuss the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and to coordinate the "maximum pressure" campaign.
  • In February, when Benjamin Netanyahu was still prime minister, the Biden administration proposed that the forum reconvene, and the group met in March and April.
  • When Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited the White House last month, he and President Biden agreed to resume the working group.

What’s next: A spokesperson for Iran's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Iran would be ready to resume Vienna nuclear talks in a few weeks.

  • They have stalled under Iran's new hardline administration, which says it will scrap the draft agreement reached before the Iranian elections and take a tougher stand.
  • Iranian foreign minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian met on Tuesday in New York with the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, and will meet this week with the foreign ministers of Germany, France and the U.K. to discuss a possible resumption of the Vienna talks.
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